February 4, 2004

SPRINGFIELD (Feb. 4)–In a move designed to strengthen the state’s fragmented rail programs and assign higher priority to freight and passenger rail, House Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Hoffman (D-Collinsville) today introduced legislation that would consolidate all Illinois Commerce Commission rail functions and all current rail programs of the Illinois Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Railroads into one IDOT agency.

It would also require IDOT to adopt rules governing safe walkway conditions for railroad workers.

If passed and signed into law, House Bill 4881 would represent the first step in Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s plan to integrate rail firmly into IDOT’s transportation-planning process and make rail a full partner in the Illinois transportation network.

“Rail — both passenger and freight — is a major priority of the Blagojevich administration,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “But many feel the state’s rail programs have not been as effective as they could be because the responsibility for rail policy is still divided between two bureaucracies, IDOT and the Commerce Commission.

“The Commerce Commission historically has had responsibility for developing and enforcing safety standards in the railroad industry,” Szabo said. “That includes regulations that protect public safety, the safety of rail employees, and the safety of passengers. Much of the Commission’s effort has been focused in grade crossing protection.”

However, Szabo pointed out, IDOT also has responsibility for certain aspects of rail grade-crossing protection and for some rail-safety issues, as well as having responsibility for passenger and freight rail development.

“The fragmentation of responsibilities and separate and sometimes conflicting policies has often left communities, the industry and even the state legislature confused,” he said. “A one-stop-shop will insure one voice and one rail policy for the state on all rail-related issues.”

Szabo noted that consolidation of the state’s rail-planning organization was one of the initiatives urged by the Transportation Transition Team that began advising Blagojevich after his election as governor in November, 2002.

“Business and civic leaders, mayors, the railroad industry and rail labor all expressed concern over the current disjointed approach for state rail support in Illinois,” Szabo said.

“Groups such as Metropolis 2020, Business Leaders for Transportation, the Metropolitan Planning Council, and mayors and chambers of commerce all over the state have been demanding more and better passenger-train service, more grade-crossing separations, more commuter-rail extension,” he said. “They all want to see a heightened priority for rail.”

Szabo said Chicago business and civic interests are particularly eager to see the state move forward with its share of funding and planning for the Chicago Regional Environmental and Transportation Equity (CREATE) program, which will use some $1.3 billion in public and private funds to eliminate bottlenecks in the city’s complex and obsolete network of freight-switching infrastructure.

Meanwhile, downstate mayors and chambers of commerce are eager for the state to finish building a 110-mph passenger-train infrastructure between Chicago and St. Louis and to add additional frequencies to the current three daily round trips.

Szabo said the consolidation bill could possibly set the table for a full-fledged Division of Railroads, which would give rail parity with highways, aviation, and mass transit. Each of those modes currently is represented within IDOT by a Division-level agency headed by Director reporting directly to the Transportation Secretary.

“For too long rail has been playing second fiddle,” Szabo said. “It needs to have access to the same kind of organizational resources and managerial authority as the other transportation modes.”

Approximately 25 members of the Commerce Commission’s professional and administrative staff would be merged with some 25 employees of the IDOT Bureau of Railroads under the consolidation bill.

Also part of the legislation is a provision intended to assure that the state’s rail employees who work on the ground will be protected by a new walkway safety regulation assuring a uniform surface, maintained in a safe condition, and free of obstacles, hazards and debris.

Szabo said Rep. Hoffman included the walkway-safety provision in his bill because he was disturbed about the death of Norfolk Southern switchman Stephen Hall in a walkway accident that occurred January 14 at the carrier’s yard in Kankakee.

“The Chairman is aware that Illinois doesn’t have a railroad walkway standard as most other states do,” Szabo said. “The new bill says the Secretary of Transportation shall adopt rules governing the maintenance of safe walkways for railroad workers at locations where work is regularly performed on the ground.

“That language is a great safety-valve,” Szabo said. “If the Commission adopts our current petition for walkway standards that rule will automatically transfer over to the DOT if the consolidation goes through. However, if the Commission fails to honor UTU’s request for a rule, upon adoption of HB 4881 the DOT would be required to adopt one.”

“Rep. Hoffman said he put that language in the bill for the specific purpose of eliminating walkway hazards,” Szabo said.

Szabo said the UTU believes the bill “has the potential to strengthen rail in Illinois, to ensure that the current shift of freight from truck to rail will continue to grow, to enhance rail safety, and to attract large volumes of travelers from the air and highway modes to rail.

“More important,” he said, “it should resolve our quest for a common-sense walkway standard once and for all.”